Thomas George "Tom" Russell (born March 5, 1947/1948) is an American singer-songwriter. Although most strongly identified with the Texas Country music tradition, his music also incorporates elements of folk, Tex-Mex, and the cowboy music of the American West. Many of his songs have been recorded by other artists, including Johnny Cash, The Texas Tornados, k.d. lang, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, The Sir Douglas Quintet, Jason Boland, Nanci Griffith, Katy Moffatt, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Sailcat, Iris Dement, Dave Alvin, and Suzy Bogguss.
In addition to his music, Russell also paints folk art, and has published a book of songwriting quotes (co-edited with Sylvia Tyson), a detective novel (in Scandinavia),and a book of letters with Charles Bukowski.
Russell was born in Los Angeles in the late 1940s. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a master's degree in Sociology of Law (criminology). In 1969, he spent a year teaching in Ibadan, Nigeria during the Biafran War. He has also lived in Spain, Norway, and played music at a circus in Puerto Rico. He began his musical career in earnest in the early 1970s in Vancouver playing strip bars, then later relocated to Texas and formed a band with singer-pianist Patricia Hardin. In 1977, they moved to San Francisco, performing regularly in clubs there as Hardin & Russell, during which time they recorded the second of their two studio albums. They eventually split in 1979, at which point Russell drifted out of the music industry for a while.
While working as a taxi driver in Queens, Russell met guitarist Andrew Hardin (no relation to Patricia). After hearing his songs, Hardin convinced him that they should form a new band. Shortly after this, Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead was a passenger in Russell's cab. Russell sang him his song Gallo Del Cielo. An impressed Hunter invited Russell and Hardin first to join him on stage at New York's Bitter End, and then to become his regular opening act. Hardin remained Russell's full-time sideman until April, 2006.
Between 1984 and 1994, the Tom Russell Band, (composed of Russell on acoustic guitar and vocals, Andrew Hardin (guitar, bass), David Mansfield (slide guitar), Fats Kaplin (pedal steel, fiddle, harmonica, accordion), Lee Thornburg, Tom Timko (horns), Skip Edwards (keyboards), Hank Bones, Dusty Wakeman, Billy Troiani (bass), Rich Crane, Steve Holley, Charlie Caldarola, Mike Warner, and Jeff Donovan (drums)), released four albums on Philo records. These albums blend elements of folk, country, and rock music, and often featured songs inspired by the American Southwest, blue-collar American life, and events from his own life (for instance the track Road to Bayamon, a regular concert favorite, draws on his experiences playing in Puerto Rico). His storytelling approach was also showcased in songs such as Haley's Comet, which has also been recorded by co-writer Dave Alvin and tells of the last, sad days of Bill Haley.
In the 1990s Russell made a number of solo albums, collaborated with blues singer Barrence Whitfield on two albums, and also recorded an acoustic album mixing new material with his favorite cowboy-themed songs. His albums include several guest appearances from other folk, country, and Americana artists, such as Chris Gaffney and Dave Alvin. His song "Outbound Plane", co-written with Nanci Griffith, became a Top Ten country hit for Suzy Bogguss. However, his most significant album of the 1990s was the 1999 folk opera, The Man From God Knows Where.
Drawing on the music of Norway and Ireland in addition to American folk and country, the album is a song cycle tracing the journeys of Russell's ancestors from Europe to America, and the struggles they encountered there. Recorded in Norway near the spot where his great-grandfather was born in 1847, the album features singers Iris DeMent, Dolores Keane, and Dave Van Ronk and Kari Bremnes, playing the roles of Russell's various ancestors and telling their stories. The title came from the epitaph of another Tom Russell, an Irish activist executed in 1803.
Russell's albums in the 21st century have been heavily influenced by his current home city, El Paso. Albums such as Borderland feature a strong Tex-Mex influence and feature songs of life on both sides of the border.
His song "Tonight We Ride" was chosen by members of the Western Writers of America as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time. It is a rollicking ballad about an early 20th century cowboy who rode with Black Jack Pershing against Pancho Villa.
In 2005 Russell released Hotwalker, the second part of his Americana trilogy (the first part being "The Man From God Knows Where"). It was another conceptual work largely inspired by his correspondence with author Charles Bukowski. Subtitled "A Ballad for Gone America", the album features songs and spoken word pieces, many of the latter delivered by another friend of Bukowski, circus midget Little Jack Horton. The sampled voices of Lenny Bruce and Edward Abbey are also heard on an album which takes the form of a musical collage lamenting the passing of the America of Russell's childhood and the Beat generation.
In addition to working on new music, Russell also exhibits his original artwork and organizes an annual trans-Canadian music train, which combines song-writing and -singing workshops with live concerts aboard a vintage long-distance streamline train. This train trek was depicted in Russell's 2005 concert/documentary, "Hearts on the Line", produced by Canyon Productions, which features a concert with Russell and Andrew Hardin videotaped at Capilano College in Vancouver as well as behind the scenes footage of the music train experience.
In 2006, Russell released Love and Fear, a collection of original songs that were inspired by the highs and lows of his relationships with women. This was followed in 2007 by "Wounded Heart of America", a tribute album of Tom Russell songs covered by other artists, including Joe Ely, Suzy Bogguss, Dave Alvin, Jerry Jeff Walker, and beat poet legend Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Two new songs, "Who's Gonna Build Your Wall" and "The Death of Jimmy Martin", are also included on the album.
In 2008, Russell's new record company, Shout Factory, released a 2 CD retrospective album "Veteran's Day: Anthology" and Russell and Canyon Productions, Inc. released a DVD featuring Russell and Ian Tyson discussing the art of songwriting called "Mano a Mano." Russell is also working on a documentary film project called California Bloodlines and is currently touring, painting and writing new songs.
In 2009, Shout! Factory released Russell's album "Blood and Candle Smoke" featuring twelve original songs. The album was recorded in Tucson, AZ at Wave Lab Studios with members of Calexico providing a world music beat to many of the songs. The album was produced by Tom Russell and Craig Schumacher, who has worked with Neko Case, Iron & Wine and Calexico. 2011 saw Russell release both a new album, "Mesabi" and a DVD, "Don't Look Down".
In 2013, Frontera Records released "Aztec Jazz," a concert recording made with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble in Norway, consisting mostly of Russell’s more recent songs. Russell also released "Museum of Memories Vol. 2 (1973–2013), a collection of demos, outtakes and previously unreleased live recordings covering a forty-year span.
2014 saw the release of four projects. Two on Frontera Records: "Midway To Bayamon," a compilation of two mid-80s cassette-only releases plus bonus tracks; and "Tonight We Ride," an anthology of cowboy songs including some previously unreleased tracks. The Rockbeat label issued a 2-CD set, "The Western Years," collecting western-themed songs primarily from Russell's years on the Hightone label. Rockbeat also re-issued the acclaimed Americana classic "Tulare Dust: A Songwriters' Tribute To Merle Haggard" which Russell co-produced with Dave Alvin, including a bonus disc taken from a live concert given by many of the artists involved with the project.
Russell has announced "The Rose of Roscrae," a double-album to be released in April 2015 on Frontera Records, a cowboy folk opera that completes the trilogy begun with "The Man From God Knows Where" and "Hotwalker."Tulare Dust: A Songwriters' Tribute to Merle Haggard (1994, reissued 2014 with bonus concert disc) (Russell covers "Tulare Dust" and "They're Tearin' the Labor Camps Down")
Beyond St. Olav's Gate (1979 - 1992) (1994) A collection culled from several Russell albums released between 1979 and 1992 (Round Tower label)
The Early Years at Kerrville (2003) ("Second Time Around" and "Joshua Tree" both with Patricia Hardin)
Kerrville Folk Festival Highlights (2003) ("Mineral Wells")
The Western Years (2014) A collection culled from several Russell albums released between 1999 and 2006 (Rockbeat label)
Hearts on the Line (2005)
Mano a Mano (2008)
Don't Look Down (2011)